Today's D Brief: Miller tries again; Faster Afghanistan drawdown?; ICBM downed in test; COVID & boot camp; And a bit more.
Acting Defense Secretary tries again. Christopher Miller penned a second DoD-wide memo on Monday in an attempt to clarify his first one, which declared that the U.S. must “fight through to the finish” of an unspecified war but also said “it’s time to come home.”
Miller writes: “Building on the message and vision I set forth on Friday, I am now providing a more finite and precise statement of my goals while leading this organization:
- Bring the current war to an end in a responsible manner that guarantees the security of our citizens.
- Continue implementing the national defense strategy with emphasis on transforming the department for great power competition and the expected future strategic environment.
- Accelerate the Department’s activities to contribute to our whole-of-government efforts to combat transnational threats.”
Also: "Bring the current war to an end in a responsible manner that guarantees the security of our citizens” is not the "clear path forward" that Miller says it is. If he’s talking about Afghanistan, is it “responsible,” say, to leave before the Afghan government and Taliban have wrapped up talks? Some form of this sentiment, of course, has been the goal for nearly 19 years.
From Defense One
Pentagon Expects to Fail Another Audit, But Says Progress Made // Marcus Weisgerber: Officials say they’re on pace to pass an audit…in 2027.
Cutting U.S. Defense Attachés from Embassies Abroad is a Bad Idea // Larry Hanauer : Without them on the ground, or without the right rank, commanders and policymakers are mostly blind, deaf, and mute.
COVID-19 Is Out of Control. What Can We Do? / Thomas R. Frieden: We need a one-two punch to knock the virus down and then keep it down.
Welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief from Bradley Peniston above and Ben Watson below. Send us tips from your community right here. And if you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this day in 1967, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson told Americans “We are inflicting greater losses than we're taking” in Vietnam, which he said means, “We are making progress.” That regional war would continue for almost eight more years before the U.S. finally departed Saigon.
Forced drawdown in Afghanistan and Iraq? U.S. military commanders expect President Trump will order hundreds of American troops to withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq before he leaves office. That’s what multiple outlets learned Monday after Reuters reported “Trump might settle for a partial reduction” of American troops from those two countries ahead of Inauguration Day at the White House.
What’s going on: A U.S. official told Reuters “the military was expecting formal orders in the coming days to go down to about 2,500 troops in Afghanistan by early next year from around 4,500 currently.” The Associated Press reports “military leaders were told over the weekend about the planned withdrawals and that an executive order is in the works but has not yet been delivered to commanders.”
CNN reported American commanders have been given a "warning order" to reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan by 2,000 and in Iraq by 500 by January 15. And that order could come down as soon as this week, according to CNN. (The Wall Street Journal reports the orders could come as soon as Tuesday.)
Worth noting: Planning of this kind is not terribly surprising considering Trump’s history of remarks and tweets and 2016 campaign promises about withdrawing troops from its “forever wars” abroad. It’s also fairly expected news — the planning, anyway — considering the U.S. military routinely maps out contingencies and what-ifs for every combatant command across the globe.
Will Trump really remove all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by Christmas? Unlikely, Reuters reports. “It has always been a conditions-based effort and that effort continues,” a senior U.S. defense official said. More, here.
Untouched: The roughly 1,000 U.S. troops deployed inside Syria, according to the Wall Street Journal.
A/SecDef Miller’s POV? As recently as Friday, Trump’s current (acting) Pentagon chief didn’t seem to be fully onboard with an abrupt drawdown from America’s 19-year global war on al-Qaeda affiliates. Here’s Miller writing in his first department-wide memo on Friday: “As we prepare for the future, we remain committed to finishing the war that Al Qaida brought to our shores in 2001. This war isn't over. We are on the verge of defeating Al Qaida and its associates, but we must avoid our past strategic error of failing to see the fight through to the finish.”
What about the contractors, you ask? Micah Zenko reviewed the numbers and tweeted Monday evening that the "US can draw down to 2,500 troops in Afghanistan and still influence events or surge back post-Jan. 20. Because there's also 22,562 Pentagon contractors in country; 7,856 of whom are US citizens.”
NATO’s reax to the Afghan drawdown chatter: “We went into Afghanistan together,” said Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg today. “And when the time is right, we should leave together in a coordinated and orderly way.” More from Politico and CNN.
Senate Majority Leader McConnell is also not a fan of quickly leaving Afghanistan. Sen. McConnell, R-Ky., addressed the rumors on the Senate floor Monday. “There's no American who does not wish the war in Afghanistan against terrorists and their enablers had already been conclusively won… But that does not change the actual choice before us now. A rapid withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan now would hurt our allies and delight — delight — the people who wish us harm… The consequences of a premature American exit would likely be even worse than President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq back in 2011.” More of McConnell’s remarks, via Afghanistan’s Tolo News, here. Or watch them at C-SPAN, here.
Get smart on Afghanistan: The Congressional Research Service updated its “Background and U.S. Policy: In Brief” report on Nov. 10. Read that, here.
Another big call Trump wants to make, but is advised strongly against: Striking Iran to slow down its nuclear program, according to five New York Times reporters who teamed up Monday evening. Trump reportedly pitched the question to his senior advisors in the Oval Office last Thursday.
In short, “The advisers — including Vice President Mike Pence; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Christopher C. Miller, the acting defense secretary; and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — warned that a strike against Iran’s facilities could easily escalate into a broader conflict in the last weeks of Mr. Trump’s presidency.”
Why this matters: Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium continues to grow, the Washington Post reported this weekend. And those stocks have grown almost entirely after Trump withdrew the U.S. from the so-called Iran nuclear deal on May 8, 2018. What’s more, the Times adds, “The episode underscored how Mr. Trump still faces an array of global threats in his final weeks in office. A strike on Iran may not play well to his base, which is largely opposed to a deeper American conflict in the Middle East, but it could poison relations with Tehran so that it would be much harder for President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear accord, as he has promised to do.” Continue reading, here.
By the way, here are two very concerning realizations heading into a Biden presidency: “Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon than it was 4 years ago when [Donald Trump] became president, & North Korea has more nuclear weapons and long range missiles than it did,” Richard Haass, who is president of the Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted this morning after reading that Times story above on Trump and Iran. “That is the bottom line following 4 years of misguided foreign policy,” Haass added.
Remember the Saudi-led war in Yemen? Riyadh reportedly wants “a buffer zone along the kingdom’s borders” with Yemen in exchange for a ceasefire in that five-year war, Reuters reports today.
What’s known so far: “Riyadh wants Houthi forces to leave a corridor along the Saudi borders to prevent incursions and artillery fire. In exchange, the kingdom would ease an air and sea blockade as part of the U.N. proposal for a ceasefire, which already includes an end to cross-border attacks.” The Houthis have reportedly not yet responded to the offer. More here.
Related: “Trump Administration Plans to Designate Yemen’s Houthis as Terrorists,” FP’s Jack Detsch reported Monday.
Today in photos: How COVID-19 is reshaping Marine boot camp, via New York Times photographer Dave Philipps.
It’s been two weeks since Election Day, and we’re just nine weeks from Inauguration Day. More foreign leaders have acknowledged U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s election victory than members of the Republican party.
Voter fraud update: “Unsubstantiated” and “technically incoherent.” That’s how nearly 60 “of the country’s top computer scientists and election security experts rebuked President Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud and hacking on Monday,” the New York Times reported.
Republicans are pressing Georgia officials to throw out legally cast ballots, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said Monday. “In a wide-ranging interview about the election, Raffensperger expressed exasperation over a string of baseless allegations coming from Trump and his allies about the integrity of the Georgia results,” the Washington Post reported Monday.
Raffensperger called out two GOPers in particular: Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. (“Raffensperger said he was stunned that Graham appeared to suggest that he find a way to toss legally cast ballots”) and Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., who “is leading the president’s efforts in Georgia and whom Raffensperger called a ‘liar’ and a ‘charlatan.’” Read on, here.
Happening now: The CEOs of Twitter and Facebook are testifying on how their platforms handled disinformation in the 2020 U.S. election. That began at 10 a.m. ET at the Senate Judiciary Committee. Catch the livestream here; or read a preview from AP, here.
In a new first, the U.S. military says it shot down a test ICBM with an SM-3 missile. The Missile Defense Agency announced the news overnight
Involved: The USS John Finn, an Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System-equipped destroyer. That system allegedly successfully "intercepted and destroyed a threat-representative Intercontinental Ballistic Missile...during a flight test demonstration in the broad ocean area northeast of Hawaii" on Monday around 8 p.m. local.
The test was supposed to happen six months ago, but all that “was delayed due to restrictions in personnel and equipment movement intended to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” MDA said.
Why it matters: “Previous tests against ICBM targets had used interceptors launched from underground silos in the United States,” AP’s Bob Burns reports. “If further, more challenging tests prove successful, the ship-based approach could add to the credibility and reliability of the Pentagon’s existing missile defense system.” More here.
SpaceX sent four astronauts into space for the first time on Sunday, “marking the kick-off of what NASA hopes will be years of the company helping to keep the International Space Station fully staffed,” CNN reported. The firm previously tested such a flight when it sent two astronauts into orbit back in May.
Quick aside on orbital logistics: The astronauts’ 27-hour trip “would have been shorter if the Crew Dragon were able to launch on Saturday, as NASA first planned, because the ISS would have lined up in such away as to allow the spacecraft to reach the space station in about eight hours,” CNN writes. “But bad weather brought by Hurricane Eta forced launch officials to delay takeoff to Sunday evening.” Read on, here.
And finally today: Now would seem to be a really bad time to unleash any ancient Egyptian curses. The New York Times reported Sunday that “Archaeologists in Egypt have unearthed more than 100 delicately painted wooden coffins, some with mummies inside, and 40 funeral statues in the ancient burial ground of Saqqara,” which is about 20 miles south of Cairo.
Some of the coffins date as far back as 2,500 years, and appear to have never been opened in the intervening years. Other “wooden statues and colored and gilded masks” were found at Saqqara, too, and several are in superb condition, according to Egypt Today. More here. (As for the superstitious humor, credit to WaPo’s Paul Farhi.)